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Moving From Standards to Sustainability

thatcher-youngIn many industries, the lack of standards has gotten us into trouble. For years, the financial services sector went unregulated, resulting in a financial meltdown. The impact of this meltdown is still being felt across our economy.

Similarly, years of loosely enforced environmental regulations led to the precarious state we’re now in with our planet. But, we are beginning to see businesses across a variety of industries showing great desire to change — both internally and externally with their customers and spheres of influence. They want to take real, measurable steps to better the environment, and are looking beyond regulations towards sustainability standards to get them where they want to go.

Organic foods, green buildings, travel and tourism, and my industry (experiential marketing) are all stepping up to the plate.

The problem is that while standards are a necessary and logical next step, there’s still a major gap in understanding between the benchmarks businesses should aim for, and the actions they need to take to meet these benchmarks. For businesses to achieve standards compliance, they need a clear picture of how sustainability standards can be translated into action-a road map.

For a number of years, I worked with Georgia Department of Natural Resources as a member of the “Partnership for a Sustainable Georgia” team, helping companies throughout the state develop their own road maps. I was inspired to see just how motivated businesses became once a sustainability plan was understood and a simple, measurable action plan was in place. Now, for the experiential marketing industry, we’re working with the BS 8901 standard for sustainable events to create a roadmap that demonstrates how to integrate this standard into our client campaigns. .

Along the way, we’ve learned some lessons that might be transferrable to other companies looking to create their own roadmaps to compliance with sustainability standards. Regardless of whether or not a standard within your industry exists, sustainability management can be broken down into more easily digestible pieces by looking at what you can and cannot control as a company.

1. Direct control

There are countless items that you can control internally. Among them are your energy and water usage, the products you choose to buy, whether or not you recycle, and whether you host teleconferences rather than travel for meetings. The list goes on.

2. Influence

There is also a wide array of items that your business can influence, even without having direct control. These include things like how your employees get to work, whether your property manager installs energy efficient light bulbs in the building, and how your suppliers transport your purchases.

3. Example

Even if you have no direct control or influence, you can still play a critical leadership role by the very actions that you are taking. These actions set an example, and demonstrate that sustainability is an achievable and worthwhile goal.

Most companies start the journey towards sustainability by doing an internal evaluation of what their business has direct control over. This evaluation will vary based upon the type of services or products you provide, but some common areas to consider include purchasing habits, material and product use, energy and water use.

An internal assessment can look daunting, so by strategically identifying the areas you consider most important, you can break down your own organizational sustainability goals into a more manageable system. Most importantly, choose an area of impact and take action. Once you see real results you will be motivated to dig deeper.

Focusing on the things over which your businesses has direct control is a great way to get started, but where most businesses have the ultimate potential to create a paradigm shift is within the “influence” and “example” spheres. There are immeasurable ways that you can educate others and ultimately influence the behaviors of your employees, suppliers and partners, and customers.

For example, retailers have been talking about adding labels to their products, similar to nutrition labels on food, to inform consumers of the product’s environmental footprint. This type of action is an “influence” action, since it’s up to the suppliers to add the label to their products, and to consumers to use the label as a basis for selecting products. It’s still a step in the direction of where we need to be.

Another recent success is Wal-Mart’s new sustainability index, which will influence other competitors and companies throughout the supply chain to make a change. We’re hoping that our sustainable experiential marketing guidelines will have a halo effect on our clients, suppliers, vendors, and partners – and lead to long-term, positive changes in our industry.

And, since experiential marketing is a consumer-facing business by its very nature, we’ll continue to bring sustainable campaigns to life in the streets, every day – increasing our sphere of influence even further.

There’s no real end to the journey towards sustainability – it’s a continuous process of setting and reaching for new goals. But, by creating and following a roadmap, and finding ways to expand your channels of influence, businesses can dramatically enhance their sustainability efforts, and guide others towards embracing a more sustainable future.

Thatcher Young is the Sustainability Director at ignition Inc., an experiential marketing agency behind Coca-Cola’s Olympic Torch Relays and the Live Earth concert. He previously served as Sustainability Advisor and Sustainability Outreach Manager to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

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